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Surf Excel ad does not promote 'love jihad', but it is a damaging script that misreads India's inherent pluralism

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. The aphorism, attributed to Robert Hanlon, is useful in describing Hindustan Unilever’s controversial detergent powder commercial surrounding the festival of Holi that has sparked a furor. The ad is misdirected and horrible. But not for the stupid reasons that are being discussed on social media. It is a complete misrepresentation of the inclusivity of Indian cultural ethos. Worryingly, the useless debates surrounding it have taken away from the real issues. The commercial’s damaging conclusions have been willingly and inadvertently promoted.

The 'Surf Excel' ad is drawing a lot of attention. One hopes those watching it won't be persuaded by its subtle promotion of divisiveness and victimhood narrative. But hopes aren’t high. Critical thinking has vanished from India’s public sphere, as author and historian Hindol Sengupta correctly pointed out on Twitter.

Take the copywriter, for instance. Her or his intentions may have been noble, but when was road to hell not paved with good intentions? While promoting communal harmony of the vanilla sort, the ad has managed to do quite the opposite — introduce coerced alienation among communities in such a warm-hearted way that we happily swallow the sugar-coated toxin. The brand’s tagline 'daag achhe hain' could have been creatively used to deliver a more harmonious message while staying within the same script but what got delivered in the end militates against the inherent pluralism of India that has enabled a diverse nation to share one idea of a nationhood.

 Surf Excel ad does not promote love jihad, but it is a damaging script that misreads Indias inherent pluralism

The problem has been compounded by the hotheads among the cultural right in India who see the ghost of 'love jihad' in every ticking of clock. Grab from YouTube

The problem has been compounded by the hotheads among the cultural right in India who see the ghost of 'love jihad' in every ticking of clock. This ridiculous argument not only fails to address the issue but distracts from it and provides fodder for fundamentalists from both sides to hijack the debate. So, let’s be clear, the ad does carry a troubling political message, but it does not promote 'love jihad' or any such ridiculous notions. There is no grand conspiracy against Hinduism or a concerted effort by a multinational firm to spread Hinduphobia.

Such misplaced victimhood may be good for whipping up frenzy on social media, but it inadvertently encourages the sort of insipid messaging that this commercial is guilty of. And those backing the ad and commenting on the 'stupidity of bhakts', may do well to check whether they have been sharp enough to identify the problem with the script in their eagerness to score brownie points over their ideological opponents.

In a one-minute span, the commercial shows one young Hindu girl challenging neighbourhood kids to splash all their color on her during Holi so that the stock is exhausted and her Muslim friend, a young boy of the same age dressed in pristine white, may ride her bike to the nearby mosque. The ad ends with the girl promising to splash color on her friend later.

The first problem with the commercial is that beneath the message of communal harmony, it spreads a damaging suggestion that cultural festivals in India are ghettoized and restricted to respective communities. When did one community in India need “protection” during a festival to observe their faith? Who gave the admakers the idea that Muslims in India do not celebrate Holi?

It is an ignorant and despicable assumption. The fabric of India survives due to cultural overlaps that cross over and assimilate into different religions. As a kid, we grew up sharing colour during Holi with neighbourhood Muslim kids and friends without ever wondering about their religion, and they enjoyed it as much as we did. And we did so not out of any noble intention of spreading “communal harmony” but because we were merely following the lived reality of India which flows from its syncretic civilisational past.

In a piece for Scroll, Rana Safvi points out that Holi was celebrated during Mughal dynasty with the same fervor as Id, and regardless of caste, class or religion, even the poorest of the poor could throw colour at the emperor. She quotes Maheshwar Dyal in Alam Mein Intikhaab Dilli that 'Holi is an ancient Hindustani festival which is played by every man and woman irrespective of religion and caste. After coming to India, the Muslims also played Holi with gusto, be it the Badshah or the Faqeer'."

The festival wasn’t identified with a religion but with a season, spring, and one can cite countless examples of interfaith amity over it.

And this is true not only of Holi but with most festivities in India where cultural ethos reigns over religious dictums, embraces all communities and strengthens the inherent pluralism of Indian society. Durga Puja is not a 'Hindu festival', but one more occasion to soak in the spirit of festivities. The syncretism goes even further.


As Shamik Bag writes in Livemint, a small club in Kidderpore, Kolkata, has been organising Durga Puja for seven decades. It is organised “almost entirely by the club’s Muslim members” and except just two Hindu members, all other 20-25 members in “puja committee” are Muslims.

Christmas in India is not restricted to members of the Christian community. Hindus and Muslims perhaps celebrate it with more gusto. The scriptwriter may visit Kolkata on 25 December to have a better understanding of the pluralism of Indian society. To suggest that celebration of one festival causes problems for members of the other communities and it takes a large-hearted individual to “rescue” them is the worst sort of political messaging that promotes “otherization”, alienation and hammers away at the very amity that it seeks to promote.

Quite possibly, the motivation for this blunder lies not in deviousness but, as Hindol points out, in incompetence. Finally, the ad makes strange insinuations against a festival that seeks to bring people together. What better way to spread amity than spreading colour in spring that makes it impossible to distinguish between Hindu and Muslim, friend or foe? The admakers and those championing this code of discord should ponder over it.

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Updated Date: Mar 12, 2019 18:17:44 IST

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